Smithers. If you look on a map, you’ll find it in northwestern British Columbia – about 12 hours north of Vancouver, British Columbia. With a full-time population of roughly 5,500 – ballooning to several thousand more in the summer months, the outskirts are laden with mineral exploration, fishing, hunting, and outdoor experiences. It’s a true paradise if you want to get back to nature.
To handle remote food distribution in the territory, the region relies on Bulkley Valley Wholesale, a division of the Overwaitea Food Group LP and Save-On Foods. Bulkley operates a fleet of five trucks.
The wholesale food store, which is also a cash-and-carry facility for local residents, operates a delivery service with a 900-kilometer radius. It replenishes food supplies in communities as far east as Prince George, and to Prince Rupert on the west coast. It also makes monthly trips to the Yukon, delivering a trailer load of food supplies to the Liard First Nation community, just north of Watson Lake.
“We have a unique operation,” said Mike Dandenault, who serves as director of wholesale for the company. “We’re a supplier of food and perishables for mining camps in the Golden Triangle (where gold and mineral exploration takes place), plus we supply fishing lodges, hunting camps, restaurants and small stores and gas stations throughout our territory. In the case of wildfires, we’ll deliver to fire camp outposts. Our trucks will make peddle runs – often having 20 to 30 stops before returning home.”
Handling the load are three Peterbilt Model 579s – two daycabs, and one sleeper, leased through Peterbilt Pacific Leasing, the PacLease franchise in Surrey. Bulkley Wholesale also has a Peterbilt Model 348 straight truck on order from PacLease to replace one of the two remaining trucks it has in ownership. The tractors haul 36-foot refrigerated trailers (the smaller size is needed for remote deliveries and maneuverability), plus one 48-foot trailer for larger orders and runs to the Yukon.
“The move to leasing three years ago with PacLease has been tremendous,” said Dandenault. “Up here, consistency and reliability is what our food delivery service is all about. Prior to partnering with PacLease, we had a hodgepodge of used tractors. Our trucks often broke down, which resulted in significant repair bills and delayed deliveries. Customer service is our No. 1 priority and we always want to deliver when promised. This prompted us to move away from owning our equipment to leasing from PacLease. We needed reliable equipment that our drivers wanted to drive, and we are thrilled with our Peterbilts. And we’re happy we have a fixed monthly payment, which includes the lease, repairs, maintenance and service.”
According to Dandenault, it’s worked out as advertised.
The first part of the equation was spec’ing the Peterbilts to the terrain and task at hand. “PacLease and Erich Schmidt, our PacLease representative out of Surrey, did a great job of working with us on the specs,” Dandenault said. “The trucks have 500 hp engines and Eaton Ultrashift 18-speed transmissions. We had them add moose guards and extra lighting, which we need up here since we don’t have much daylight in the winter. Plus we have snow. Lots of it. It’s early March and we still have four feet of snow on the ground. It’s challenging – our drivers have to chain up quite a bit.”
Since the closest PacLease facility is two hours away, PacLease works with a local vendor to provide service in times of need to ease the maintenance burden. More major service requirements can be handled at a PacLease location in Prince George. “That’s worked great,” said Dandenault. “There is constant communication between PacLease and our local shop to ensure all the PMs are handled in a timely manner.”
Dandenault had his drivers pick up the three new Peterbilts from PacLease, and when they returned, “smiles were all across their faces. One of our drivers said, ‘you have to drive with me! You’re not going to believe how nice these trucks drive.’ They were that excited.”
And, according to Dandenault, that’s important, especially in a small town like Smithers where hiring can be tight. “When you have good equipment, you retain people,” he said. “Hiring is always a challenge here, and we want to keep the drivers we have and the Peterbilts are helping us do that. And, it’s projecting our company in the right light. We’ve had many customers comment on how nice our equipment is, and that makes me proud.”
Having reliable, well-thought-of equipment is one thing, driving down costs is another. And PacLease has delivered on that as well for Dandenault. “If PacLease wasn’t cost-effective, we wouldn’t do it,” he said. “The economics are much better and we’re saving money, we have less downtime, and our driver morale is way up. Before our PacLease partnership, investment in repairs was constant, and it was growing. Now we have a fixed budget and no hidden surprises. And for us, in the food business, where margins are extremely thin, that’s important. Today, we know our costs and we know we’re going to make the delivery as promised.”